Oregon Bach Festival: riding out the storm

Venerable music institution mounts its 49th summer festival amid leadership transition and uncertain future

The 49th Oregon Bach Festival has lately been looking a bit like a Blah-ch Festival. If the venerable University of Oregon music institution is ever to regain the cultural primacy it once enjoyed in its glory days, I’m afraid we’ll need to wait for new artistic and executive leadership. Happily, that’s on the way, with the festival having laid off controversial executive director Janelle McCoy and reversed her much-derided decision to institute a rotating directorship or leadership by committee (the last two years), instead of replacing the respected artistic director she railroaded out of town for never-explained reasons

This year’s program, like last year’s, was put together by an artistic committee of music faculty and other UO personnel chaired by McCoy. Her job was made no easier by university-imposed cutbacks that left the festival nearly bereft of star power and big splashy productions and commissions. Yet some highlights shine — if you know where to look.

Beyond Bach

While named after an 18th century master, the festival does provide some space for new sounds, or updates on old ones. My top recommendation for the entire festival: Portland composer and jazz pianist Darrell Grant’s The Territory, which we reviewed here after its second Portland performance. Kudos to the festival for featuring a major recent work by a top Oregon composer. Grant and jazz ensemble perform in Soreng Theater July 12.

On July 2 at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall, one of America’s most acclaimed new music ensembles, Brooklyn Rider string quartet, plays one of the greatest of all chamber works, Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet, plus five new commissions on the subject of healing written by some of today’s leading composers (all of whom happen to be women): Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts and recent Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw and Du Yun.

Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Portland Cello Project has been making a classical instrument hip for over a decade. They also play Beethoven, but mostly new music, and it more often comes from hip hop, rock and other pop artists. A big draw wherever it goes in on its many tours, the ensemble returns to OBF June 29 with a program featuring music by Radiohead, John Coltrane, and more — including, of course, J.S. Bach himself. 

Speaking of cellos, Bach’s sublime sextet of cello suites are pillars of Baroque music, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a new coat of paint every now and then. Scottish composer and cellist Peter Gregson is bringing yet another cello ensemble and electronics to Soreng July 6, playing his updated version of Bach’s classics. Musicians have been transposing, translating, rocking out, jazzing up, switching on, and otherwise transforming Bach’s music since shortly after it was originally composed. Just ask Modern Jazz Quartet, Swingle Singers, Wendy Carlos, and so many others. So even though purists may shudder, listeners who approach Gregson’s project with an open mind (and ears) will find moments of real beauty when considered on its own terms. But remember, while there’s Bach in the mix, it ain’t exactly Johann Sebastian.

Cellist Peter Gregson.
Cellist Peter Gregson.

Genuine Bach pervades the biggest production of this festival, DanceAbility International’s Bach in Motion on July 5 at the Hult’s Silva Hall. DanceAbility’s Alito Alessi has amazed Oregon for decades by demonstrating that everyone really can dance. He’s joined with Bach conductor/researcher Koji Otsuki (who masterminded the project), a quartet of distinguished classical singers, the UO Chamber Choir and the festival orchestra led by early music specialist Jane Glover to set Bach’s music in motion. 

Again, the festival deserves credit for turning to Oregon creative artists to help it transcend its current tribulations. I hope that emphasis, as well as the historically informed focus, continues in its next incarnation. Still, it’s disappointing that the festival didn’t commission or at least perform at least some new work in Bach’s tradition, especially from Oregon composers. The UO’s own Robert Kyr has written plenty of neo-Bachian music, and the state boasts plenty of other candidates. And it’s a shame that the festival has failed to make its primary new music program, the biennial Composers Symposium, an annual event.

There’s hip, and then there’s HIP

Glover has led a couple of major historically informed performance (HIP) orchestras, London Mozart Players and Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, and worked with many others. The English conductor returns to Mozart June 29, with a pair of musical bookends: Amadeus’s orchestral breakthrough, written at age 18, Symphony #29, and his last work, the magnificent Requiem, one of the most moving of all musical creations.

What’s making OBF special these days is its commendable commitment to HIP performances. It might be making a virtue of necessity, but the festival’s downsizing has forced it to rely more on its parent institution, the UO School of Music and Dance, and especially its Berwick Academy instituted by ejected director Matthew Halls. And for fans of historically informed performance practice — a fancy term for hearing the music as closely as possible to the way its composers intended — that’s a good thing. 

The Hendrix of the recorder, Matthias Maute. Photo by Bill Blackstone.
The Hendrix of the recorder, Matthias Maute. Photo by Bill Blackstone.

The academy’s free chamber music concerts on June 29 and the afternoons of July 5 and July 6 at Tykeson, Berwick Hall (the July 5 show features the faculty and guest artists) are an easy way to get really close to 18th century music the way it was meant to be heard. And on July 1 at Beall Hall, the phenomenal recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute (the Hendrix of the little flute-like instrument) and the Berwick band play music by Bach’s Baroque contemporaries Rameau, Telemann and Vivaldi.

Best of all for period instrument fans: the June 30 All-Handel Concert (the ever-popular and tuneful Water Music, an Italian cantata, and one of his famous concertos for two wind choirs) led by one of the great early music conductors, John Butt. He also leads the Berwick players and festival chorus July 9 at Beall in a Magnificat by Bach — but not J.S. Instead, it’s by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, also a popular composer in the musical styles that followed the Baroque period. 

Lasting Legacies

The best place to really immerse yourself in the festival’s namesake is the legendary Discovery Series shows at Beall Hall created by founder Helmuth Rilling, where conductor Scott Allen Jarrett combines teaching and performance in a deep dive into what makes Bach great. As with any great music, you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy it (a fear that unfortunately drives too many listeners from trying out classical music), but if you want to understand why it moves you so, and how Bach used music to tell stories, the series helps. This year’s subjects: two of many great Bach cantatas (choral-orchestral works with vocal soloists, kind of mini-Passions) that we sadly seldom hear these days. The July 3 and July 7 performances respectively spotlight his stirring 74th and 34th cantatas.

The festival actually started out way back in 1970 as a workshop for choral and organ music, with a single culminating concert. Organ music has always maintained a presence, and this year, the only organist ever to receive a Grammy award, New Yorker Paul Jacobs, returns July 8 with music by Bach, American master Charles Ives, Mozart and Louis Vierne’s 1930 epic, pensive to pastoral to powerful Organ Symphony No. 6, performed on First Methodist Church medium-sized but mighty Hochhalter organ.

Vocal ensemble New York Polyphony.
Vocal ensemble New York Polyphony.

While Baroque will ever be the festival’s bread and butter, its programming usually stretches forward by a century or three. This time, it’s also looking backward — to the Renaissance, thanks to the acclaimed vocal ensemble New York Polyphony, which not coincidentally includes bass baritone Craig Phillips, who joined the UO faculty last year. On July 11 at Beall, they’ll sing Lamentations of Jeremiah by Spanish Renaissance master Francisco de Peñalosa and another rarity, the solemn Officium de Cruce, an early example of multimedia art that Flemish composer Loyset Compère created to be sung while the patron who commissioned it absorbed the words and drawings in an illuminated prayer book. This is a top choice for the festival’s closing stretch.

A character from Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre's Legends of Coyote.
A character from Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre’s Legends of Coyote.

Still another festival regular, renowned choral conductor Anton Armstrong, returns to First Methodist July 10 to lead the annual performance by Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, some of America’s top high school choristers. Along with vocal soloists, they’ll sing one of Bach’s most popular cantatas, BWV 140 (Sleepers Awake) and contemporary works. That’s only one of several youth choir shows, some free, throughout the festival.

There’s lots more, including talks, free shows, family friendly fare (by Portland’s great Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre and soprano Julia Sophie Wagner), and more, so check the website for the full program. Friday’s opening night sampler at the Hult Center provides an overview, plus excellent guest artists from the Portland area like DUO Stephanie & Saar, fresh off their Makrokosmos marathon, Oregon Mandolin Orchestra, and others. The festival closes July 13 back at the Hult as usual with a big choral-orchestral masterpiece. But instead of Bach, it’s an early Romantic classic: Berlioz’s dramatic 1839 choral symphony, Romeo & Juliet, with a genuine star, bass Eric Owens, in the central role of Friar Laurence. 

Bass-baritone Eric Owens. Photo by Dario Acosta.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens. Photo by Dario Acosta.

Next year marks the Oregon Bach Festival’s 50th anniversary. Let’s hope that momentous occasion inspires its parent, the University of Oregon, to find the new leadership and resources one of Oregon’s most important artistic institutions needs to regain — maybe even surpass — its earlier heights.

The 49th Oregon Bach Festival runs June 28-July 13 at the University of Oregon, the Hult Center, and other Eugene and Springfield venues. Tickets and information online.

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3 Responses.

  1. W.T.F. Bach says:

    To recap: according to author Brett Campbell, this year’s Festival is supposedly “Blah-ch,” yet, ultimately, Mr. Campbell lists virtually EVERY performance as a Festival highlight!

    Mr. Campbell, if you feel like being the in-print version of OBF’s door hitting Ms. McCoy on the a** as she leaves, so be it, but please don’t allow your dislike of the now lame duck executive to muddle your obvious (and accurate!) support of this year’s programming and artists.

    It’s a real shame how, with this preview, you’ve underserved your readers and the arts in Eugene, Mr. Campbell. The title and first paragraph paint OBF as worth missing, yet, by and large, your review offers praise for practically every one of OBF 2019’s very fine offerings.

    Better luck next year.

    • Amy Adams says:

      Mr. or Ms. “W.T.F. Bach” –

      This isn’t a review. Look at the date.

      As Brett points out in his reply, it’s a preview of the festival before it began, with an insightful discussion of the programming process in the absence of an artistic director.
      Thank goodness the festival’s heading now in the opposite direction of where it was veering – it’s Artistic Direction which has been missing since the pointless ouster of the excellent Matthew Halls.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. You may have a mistaken impression of how our previews work. We like to tell our readers about events they might be interested in, even if they don’t necessarily comport with our own preferences, as long as we’re confident they’ll be at least competently performed. Just because we list and describe events doesn’t mean we’re necessarily endorsing all of them for all audiences.

    This year’s Bach Festival contains 25 different performances. I noted 17 of them, and enthusiastically endorsed seven — fewer than the good old days. Except possibly for ‘The Territory,’ DanceAbility, and New York Polyphony, none of the special performances (that is, beyond the bread and butter shows at every OBF) really rise to the level of the top attractions from past festivals — those that elevate a festival to beyond blah.

    That doesn’t mean the rest of the lineup is all bad. The past couple editions of the festival certainly boasted some worthwhile music, but compared to the heights reached at previous festivals, my overall impression is a little, well, blah.

    For the record, I don’t know Ms. McCoy, and have no reason to wish her ill. I did accurately note that her removal of the festival’s artistic director and her plan to replace him had received considerable criticism in Oregon and beyond, and the latter was reversed. And I noted that ultimately, the University of Oregon bears responsibility for the festival’s flagging fortunes, not any single administrator.

    We at ArtsWatch want this important Oregon arts institution to return to its former heights, but it can’t do so if we pretend that everything is fine. Oregon — and the Oregon Bach Festival — can do better than mostly blah.

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